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Our Lady Of Duality - an essay Print-ready version

by Jim L'Hommedieu
May 20, 2000

The occasional criticism that Joni Mitchell's voice has been suddenly damaged misses the point.

Does anyone complain about the "poor" fuel economy of a Ferrari? Does anyone complain that too much "cold" concrete was used to make the Empire State Building?

No, these arguments overlook the magnificence of the object when examined on its own terms. And so it is with the argument that Joni's voice has deteriorated.

Those who make this argument lost touch with Joni's muse before she approached the brilliance of albums like "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns". They perceive a sudden change in her voice because they didn't 'get it' then. And they don't 'get it' now. They don't see that in the 1960s she couldn't sing jazz. They don't know that back then, she couldn't possibly have sung the standards like she did on the splendid "Both Sides Now" tour (completed June 2000).

If Joni's talent in 1967 was a half glass of milk, they see the "folkie glass" as now nearly empty but they don't understand that the "jazz glass" is absolutely brimming! Apparently they see a faded folkie propped up in front of an orchestra.

To look back upon her 60s voice and complain that she lost it, is to be stuck in the folkie misconception. They want Joni to come out with a 6 string and paint "Chelsea Morning" for them again. They remain permanently fixed on the image of the empty canvas. The texture of the blank. The nil void. The clear soprano. The old singles.

I contend that they never really knew Joni, at all.

They misunderstood her first album, "Song To A Seagull". Seeing only the superficial, they saw the first waif of modern rock. They didn't see the rich canvas that David Crosby saw. They didn't appreciate the wonderfully inventive and complex finger picking in alternate tunings and remarkable, non-standard chords. They missed the sharply observed character sketch that is "Nathan La Franeer". They comprehended on their own level: that of folkie-literal-realism. Ultimately, of course they completely missed the dizzying metaphorical complexity of "Cactus Tree".

How could they possibly make the transition to understanding that "Amelia" is an art song about loss and courage? Or that "Paprika Plains" is a spacey long-form adventure? Or "Sex Kills" is a bitter social commentary?

Joni has always been about complexity. Look at the relationship in "The Last Time I Saw Richard". The duality of "Both Sides Now". Her best stories have always been about rich color, exquisite multiplicity. Even in her 6 string days, she was never bound by the limitations of the 6 string itself.

Similarly the rock band "The Police" were informed by elements of calypso, but they were not reggae itself. And so it was with Joni. She was always developing, even when the public perceived her as a folkie, a fixed object in space. Luckily for us she is more like Alexander Calder, a dabbler. Had Calder limited himself to being a painter, he never would have developed his Circus, the mobiles, let alone his singular stabiles.

Joni, the Police, and Calder all began working in one medium but they were not limited to just that one medium. McLuhan said that the "medium is the message" but only true to the great unwashed. The TV-obsessed eyes. The uneducated ear.

In contrast, Joni's work was never about folk music. Folk music was her medium but not her message. Her work was about and continues to be about metaphor, exploration. To the cognizant, the truth is never on the surface. It is a campfire but it is not about flames. It's about being transported. About warmth. Motion. Complexity. Reflection. And resonance. Here's to you Joan- Our Lady Of Duality.

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Added to Library on January 18, 2006. (8652)


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